Why do epigenetics and physiological and psychological inheritance matter? - A Victorian's Inheritance by author Helen Parker-Drabble

Epigenetics explains the interaction between nature (our genes) and nurture (our environment).[i]

It’s the study of how external forces, such as our environment and life experiences, trigger on-off mechanisms in our genes. It is involved in every aspect of life. The idea that an individual’s experience might alter the cells and behaviour of their children and grandchildren is now widely accepted.[ii]

 Why does physiological and psychological inheritance matter?

Physiological and psychological trauma can affect not only the person involved but succeeding generations. Ancestral trauma can influence and shape a descendant who has no knowledge of it.

How can we unpick cause and effect?

This is a challenge for researchers. Many of the human studies are necessarily small. However, there are some larger groups of people being studied that may provide meaningful evidence.

Physician and neuroscientist Ali Jawaid studies children living in the SOS Children’s Villages orphanages in Multan, Lahore, and Islamabad in Pakistan. The University of Zurich says the orphanages provide the best possible shelter, health care and sends youngsters to school, ‘But despite that, these children experience symptoms similar to PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder],’ as well as anxiety and depression.

Ground-breaking international research has uncovered a common set of genes that increase the risk for heritable conditions such as: ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, bipolar disorder, major depression and schizophrenia. The study’s lead author Dr Anke Hammerschlag said, ‘Our findings are an important first step towards the development of new drugs which may be effective for a wide range of patients, regardless of their exact diagnosis’.[iii]

Although we should always view revolutionary research with caution, new ‘knowledge [should] bring us closer to the development of more effective personalised medicine.’[iv]

Epigenetics: not limited to a psychological impact

Jawaid is also studying the disturbing possibility that the emotional trauma of separating children from their parents also triggers subtle biological alterations ‘changes so lasting that the children might even pass them to their own offspring’.[v]

Have you noticed repeated health conditions in your family?

In a recent study conducted at Northwestern University, Dr. Thomas McDade led a team of scientists intent on discovering the effect that poverty can have on a person’s genome. (A genome is an organism’s complete set of DNA, including all of its genes.)

McDade found that living in poverty can leave a person susceptible to insulin resistance, chronic inflammation, problems with the immune system, skeletal growth, and the nervous system.[vi]

Hope

Thankfully, professor of psychology David Moore explains that DNA does not dictate our fate but shows that epigenetic effects can also be reversed through lived experiences.[vii]

Professor Isabelle Mansuy of the University Zürich suggests life experience can be healing as well as hurtful at the molecular level:

Environmental enrichment, at the right time, could eventually help correct some of the alterations which are induced by trauma.[viii]

If so, the possibility of understanding which positive experiences are needed for better outcomes for our children and grandchildren is an optimistic and exciting one.


[i] Erick, T. of Brown University (2014). Epigenetics: How Nurture Shapes Our Nature. [online] Footnote SHOWCASING RESEARCH WITH THE POWER TO CHANGE OUR WORLD. Available at:

Epigenetics: How Nurture Shapes Our Nature
[Accessed 24 Jul. 2019].

[ii] Curry, A. (2019). Parents’ emotional trauma may change their children’s biology. Studies in mice show how. Science.

[online]

Available at: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/07/parents-emotional-trauma-may-change-their-children-s-biology-studies-mice-show-how [Accessed 23 Jul. 2019].

[iii] Hammerschlag, A., de Leeuw, C., Middeldorp, C. and Polderman, T. (2019). Synaptic and brain-expressed gene sets relate to the shared genetic risk across five psychiatric disorders. Psychological Medicine,

[online]

pp.1-11. Available at: http://www.cambridge.org [Accessed 26 Jul. 2019].

[iv] Hammerschlag, A., de Leeuw, C., Middeldorp, C. and Polderman, T. (2019). Synaptic and brain-expressed gene sets relate to the shared genetic risk across five psychiatric disorders. Psychological Medicine,

[online]

pp.1-11. Available at: http://www.cambridge.org [Accessed 26 Jul. 2019].

[v] Curry, A. (2019). Parents’ emotional trauma may change their children’s biology. Studies in mice show how. Science.

[online]

Available at: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/07/parents-emotional-trauma-may-change-their-children-s-biology-studies-mice-show-how [Accessed 23 Jul. 2019].

[vi] Hilary Hurd Anyaso, Northwestern Now, Poverty leaves a mark on our genes Northwestern University, April 05, 2019.

[vii] Moore, D. (2017). The Developing Genome: An Introduction To Behavioral Epigenetics. 1st ed. Oxford University Press.

[viii] Curry, A. (2019). Parents’ emotional trauma may change their children’s biology. Studies in mice show how. Science.

[online]

Available at: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/07/parents-emotional-trauma-may-change-their-children-s-biology-studies-mice-show-how [Accessed 23 Jul. 2019].

Why do epigenetics and physiological and psychological inheritance matter?

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